When the first sentence jumped naked on me.


EVERYBODY KNOW that you have to hook readers with the first sentence, appeal to their curiosity, whet their appetites.

I tend to write short choppy sentences, quirky Robert-Parkeresque dialogue.

So the first sentence in a book is always a challenge for me.  It has a unique place in the story, sets the stage on many levels for what is to come.

Caleb Pirtle in a post on Mark Twain mentioned that Hemingway thought Huckleberry Finn was the best American novel.  That’s good, I thought, because everyone knows that ol’ Hem was a short and choppy writer, too.

Here’s the first sentence of Huck Finn.

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

I love every word of that, even the semicolon.

Stephen Woodfin
Stephen Woodfin

So, I thought if Hemingway loved Twain that much he probably tried to emulate such a sentence. I got out my copy of A Farewell to Arms, my favorite Hemingway book.  Here’s its first line.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.

I love every word of that, too. As a matter of fact, I love every word in the whole first paragraph of that book, but that is fodder for another post.

Okay.  But the topic of this blog is how to write a bad first sentence, so here is what happened to me. I was writing a book that came to be called The Warrior with Alzheimer’s. I spent a lot of time thinking about the first sentence, because it is a novel about Alzheimer’s disease, a subject dear to my heart and the hearts of many others.

The first sentence of chapter one goes like this:

When Woody turned his Ford F150 down the off ramp on I-65 North onto Mohammed Ali Boulevard just south of the Ohio River Bridge in Louisville, Kentucky, he was on the run, confused, but not worried, lost, but not yet trapped.

It’s  not Hemingway or Twain, but it’s not too bad.

Then I went to my monthly writing group.  One of the members read a prologue to his new novel that went on for quite a ways.

I had never liked prologues anyway, so I was pretty outspoken in my critique.  As time passed, and our next meeting approached, I began to feel bad about my words at the previous meeting, so I sat down and wrote a prologue of my own, a prologue to The Sickle’s Compass, which became The Warrior with Alzheimer’s.

That’s when it happened. For some reason the new first sentence, as we say in the South, “jumped naked” on me. It overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t stop it.  I just kept writing, as in a trance.

I know that writing in a trance is a poor excuse for a bad first sentence, but this is what came out of it.  By the way, it’s the longest sentence I have ever written.

The thing that frightened Woody Wilson the most was that he knew he had begun to forget things, not things that didn’t matter, like the three way light bulbs on the grocery list, or the hand signals he flashed fifty years before to a little league batter from his coaching spot at third base that meant he should lay down a bunt on the next pitch, or the color of the dress the real estate lady wore when she showed the condo to Maggie and him, or things he liked to forget, like the preacher’s sermon from last Sunday, or the dirty joke Carruthers told at the coffee shop the week before, or the gas mileage he once calculated on his old Ford truck, not the things that people attributed to the normal forgetfulness of an old man whose brain had no more room for trivia or whose soul was worn out from five years of killing his fellow man with an M1 rifle in ancient woods where thorns of barbed wire tore his khaki uniform and rivers ran sharp around turns that accelerated the current so that it tumbled bodies over submerged rocks and rendered the human remains in the gurgling water carrion for birds already surfeited; but rather the things that mattered, like the lump he felt in his throat when his baby boy Waylon breathed the first time after the doctor slapped him on the butt, or the dark purple of wispy clouds that framed the brilliant orb of the sun as it sank below the Gulf horizon in late July after a sudden storm, or the last birthday present he had given Maggie, or what he liked about rising early in the morning when it was still dark when he inspected the house to ensure that everyone under his care was safe and accounted for, or why he loved Maggie so desperately, or why he drew his next breath, or spoke kindly to his neighbors, or why he carried a wooden stick clenched in his left hand when he took a walk along the path next to the beach road. 

At least no one can accuse me of being short and choppy on that one.

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